WASHINGTON, DC: Opposition to plans to build a mosque near “Ground Zero,” the spot where the World Trade Center’s twin towers fell on September 11, 2001, comes in various shades. To their credit, many of the project’s opponents have avoided the crass bigotry that is becoming a standard trait of right-wing discourse in the United States. But even moderate critics of the mosque (actually an Islamic cultural center with a prayer room called Park 51) betray in their arguments two assumptions that are as questionable as they are ingrained in the prevailing public discourse in the US.
The first of these misbegotten assumptions is to underrate social intolerance as a threat to freedom. While accepting the project’s impeccable legal credentials, its opponents nevertheless demand that it be relocated on the grounds that even fully lawful conduct may be offensive to a group of citizens. This is a dangerous road to take in a liberal society.
More than 150 years ago, in his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill demolished the belief that the quest for individual freedom is, above all, a struggle against the state. This belief still features prominently in the rhetorical arsenal of US conservatives, notably in the inflamed proclamations of the Tea Party movement. But, as any member of a historically persecuted community — from gays to Jews to Roma — can attest, social intolerance may curtail civil rights as much as any law.
Indeed, up until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down anti-miscegenation laws throughout the US, interracial marriages were an oddity even where they were legally allowed. A majority considered them offensive, and therefore expected interracial couples to show what is demanded today from Muslims in Manhattan: respect for other people’s sensitivities. In a nation of laws, such as the US, it is disingenuous and unfair to grant legal protection to a right — in this case the right to worship God as we see fit — and then selectively ban its exercise de facto because a majority or minority takes offense.
Thus, the strident calls to stop the Park 51 project are as serious a threat to freedom as an outright legal ban. If Muslims are not to be allowed to build anything Islamic anywhere near Ground Zero, let those who feel insulted strive to change the law through an open democratic process in which the reasons for a legal ban can be argued openly and without fig leafs. Democracy demands no less.
The second, more invidious assumption of the opponents of Park 51 concerns what happened in September 2001. Some of the project’s adversaries claim that it must be stopped because it will be a tribute to the perpetrators of a despicable deed. Underlying this argument is the idea that the attack was an explicitly religious act carried out by an enemy faith, whose believers — even those who denounced the atrocity — are tainted and deserve to have their constitutional rights restricted.
Feeling uncomfortable with this rationale, other opponents deny the religious nature of the dispute and make clear that theirs is not a quarrel with Islam. Instead, they couch their opposition to Park 51 in terms of sensitivity to the aggrieved. Of course, if their reasoning were followed to its logical conclusion, allowing the project to be built would be the most robust statement that this dispute really does not have anything to do with religion.
The real problem, however, lies elsewhere. For the moment one stops seeing the terrorist attacks of 2001 as a purely religious statement, one is forced to confront the elephant in the room: the attacks were, in essence, a political statement. At its root it is possible to find concrete US government decisions made over the years, from nurturing alliances with corrupt and authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes to maintaining a conspicuous military presence in Saudi Arabia and showing a general obliviousness to the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The policies that resulted from these decisions may or may not be necessary for America’s long-term security interests, but it is undeniable that they have fueled a backlash in the Muslim world which has, on occasion, reared its head in murderous ways. In any case, disputes over these policies are far from a theological conflict.
For nearly a decade, any attempt to recast the debate about the events of September 11, 2001, away from the prevailing theological narrative has been depicted as subversive and unpatriotic. One only has to recall the vitriol visited upon Rev. Jeremiah Wright during the last presidential campaign for his now infamous sermon in which he said that, with the attacks, the chickens of US foreign policy had come home to roost.
It is possible to disagree with Wright and his ilk, but it is hardly disputable that public debate in the US has systematically failed to engage in a serious discussion about the disturbing political issues that lurk beneath — although never justify — those attacks.
Perhaps that is why most opponents of Park 51 have sought refuge in the religious narrative of the terrorist attacks. After all, it is a narrative that, while demanding a suspension of one’s critical faculties, bestows an unmitigated blessing upon those purportedly fighting on the side of light. The other option — that US policy was in the terrorists’ crosshairs — is too upsetting for these opponents to contemplate.
We can only hope that the American public will reject not just the insistent calls to derail the construction of the Park 51 project, but also the contested assumptions that underpin opposition to it. Doing so would re-affirm American freedom and tolerance, and make the US a stronger and more respected actor abroad.
Kevin Casas-Zamora is a former Vice President of Costa Rica. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).